Raspberry Pi: a great British success story

This morning’s Observer column:

I bought my Pi from the Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge. Across the street (and one floor below) is the Apple store where I had earlier gone to buy a new keyboard for one of my Macs. The cost: £99. So for £15 more, I had a desktop computer perfectly adequate for most of the things I need to do for my work.

The Pi is one of the (few) great British technology success stories of the last decade: sales recently passed the 30m mark. But if you got your news from mainstream media you’d never know…

Read on

1984 wasn’t cancelled, merely postponed

One of the chapters in my new book (out on Thursday next though Amazon seems to be already selling the Kindle edition) is about the potential of computing and network technology to create systems for perfect surveillance and control. I’ve argued that the threat comes from two directions: one is the Orwellian one that we all know about; the other comes from companies like Apple and Google and Facebook. In both cases the connivance — tacit or active – of democratic governments is required. This anguished piece by Thom Holwerda suggests that the penny has dropped for him.

Here we are, at the start of 2012. Obama signed the NDAA for 2012, making it possible for American citizens to be detained indefinitely without any form of trial or due process, only because they are terrorist suspects. At the same time, we have SOPA, which, if passed, would enact a system in which websites can be taken off the web, again without any form of trial or due process, while also enabling the monitoring of internet traffic. Combine this with how the authorities labelled the Occupy movements – namely, as terrorists – and you can see where this is going.

In case all this reminds you of China and similarly totalitarian regimes, you're not alone. Even the Motion Picture Association of America, the MPAA, proudly proclaims that what works for China, Syria, Iran, and others, should work for the US. China's Great Firewall and similar filtering systems are glorified as workable solutions in what is supposed to be the free world.

The crux of the matter here is that unlike the days of yore, where repressive regimes needed elaborate networks of secret police and informants to monitor communication, all they need now is control over the software and hardware we use. Our desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and all manner of devices play a role in virtually all of our communication. Think you’re in the clear when communicating face-to-face? Think again. How did you arrange the meet-up? Over the phone? The web? And what do you have in your pocket or bag, always connected to the network?

This is what [Richard] Stallman has been warning us about all these years – and most of us, including myself, never really took him seriously. However, as the world changes, the importance of the ability to check what the code in your devices is doing – by someone else in case you lack the skills – becomes increasingly apparent. If we lose the ability to check what our own computers are doing, we’re boned.

Thom also points to Cory Doctorow’s chilling talk at the Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin, entitled “The coming war on general computation,” which sets things out pretty clearly.

(Transcript here for those who are too busy to watch all the way through.)

One of the most depressing things now is the discovery that Obama seems not just clueless and passive about this stuff, but that — when push comes to shove — he really sides with the forces of darkness. If SOPA ever makes it through Congress, for example, my guess is that he will sign it. After all, as Thom points out, he signed the NDAA 2012.

Ignorance scales new heights

Fascinating insight into the mind of the invincibly ignorant. This is an excerpt from an email sent by a Texan school teacher to Ken Starks, an open source evangelist:

"…observed one of my students with a group of other children gathered around his laptop. Upon looking at his computer, I saw he was giving a demonstration of some sort. The student was showing the ability of the laptop and handing out Linux disks. After confiscating the disks I called a confrence with the student and that is how I came to discover you and your organization. Mr. Starks, I am sure you strongly believe in what you are doing but I cannot either support your efforts or allow them to happen in my classroom. At this point, I am not sure what you are doing is legal. No software is free and spreading that misconception is harmful. These children look up to adults for guidance and discipline. I will research this as time allows and I want to assure you, if you are doing anything illegal, I will pursue charges as the law allows. Mr. Starks, I along with many others tried Linux during college and I assure you, the claims you make are grossly over-stated and hinge on falsehoods. I admire your attempts in getting computers in the hands of disadvantaged people but putting linux on these machines is holding our kids back.

This is a world where Windows runs on virtually every computer and putting on a carnival show for an operating system is not helping these children at all. I am sure if you contacted Microsoft, they would be more than happy to supply you with copies of an older verison of Windows and that way, your computers would actually be of service to those receiving them…"

Karen xxxxxxxxx

xxxxxxxxx Middle School

Source: Blog of helios: Linux – Stop holding our kids back.

Thanks to Good Morning Silicon Valley for spotting it.

Richard Stallman on handing over GNU Emacs

After 32 years, Richard Stallman is stepping down from being the lead maintainer/developer on Emacs. Paul Macnamara wanted to interview him about the decision (which, after all, represents a significant moment in the history of software). He got his interview — but only after agreeing to these conditions:

I’ll answer your questions if you promise me that the story will avoid a couple of frequent errors.

One common error is referring to a free operating system as “Linux.” That system is basically GNU; Linux is actually the kernel, one program in the system. Calling the whole system “Linux” means giving the system’s principal developer none of the credit. See (this link) for more explanation.

Would you please agree to distinguish consistently in your article between Linux, the kernel, and GNU/Linux, the entire system? Since GNU Emacs is part of GNU, this is directly relevant.

The other common error is labeling me, GNU, GNU/Linux, or the GNU GPL with the term “Open Source.” That is the slogan adopted in 1998 by people who reject the philosophy of the Free Software Movement. They have the right to promote their views, but we would like to be associated with our views, not theirs. For more explanation, see (this link).

My response to your questions, based on the ideals of the Free Software Movement, would be very different from what a supporter of Open Source would say.

Could you please agree to refer to this work as Free Software in your article, and not as Open Source? In particular, please don’t describe GNU Emacs as “Open Source.”

Er, I had originally categorised this post under ‘Open Source’ but, not wishing to incur the wrath of Richard, have re-categorised it!

Actually, I rather agree with him. ‘Open Source’ was a term coined to placate the US business community, which regards the word ‘free’ as a synonym for ‘communist’.